When retailers sell tobacco to teenagers under 19, they're breaking the law. Worse, they're encouraging those youthful customers to grow even more addicted to smoking or chewing.

To emphasize those points to store clerks and owners, citations can be issued, accompanied by fines of $200 to $300, for each illegal sale. In order to catch the offenders, enforcement agencies conduct undercover sting operations, sending young agents into stores to try to buy the tobacco products.For years in Davis County, an education campaign was part of the sting, to make store owners more aware of the law and the consequences of breaking it - consequences for both the owner and clerk and for their youthful customers.

But that was before the 1994 Legislature passed SB53. Now, there are fewer sting operations in Davis County, and more of them catch retailers selling tobacco to underage customers.

The reason is SB53 requires that all sting operations be directly supervised by a police officer. Before the law was passed, the Davis County Health Department conducted the stings in that county and included an educational program. The increased police involvement means retailers are often being cited without the benefits of the previous sting procedure, which included training of employees and explanation of the law.

Kevin Condra, director of health promotion and education for the county, said when his department was running the stings, it conducted about 300 each year with a rate of successful illegal buys of 13 percent to 14 percent. There are fewer stings being conducted now, and the percentage of successful illegal buys has doubled.

Condra is hoping the increase is a temporary result of confusion about the new law and that the number of stings will increase and the number of successful illegal buys will drop.

SB53 was passed at the urging of lobbyists for the retailers - those folks who were stung by the health department's undercover operations. Requiring that a police officer be directly involved in each sting obviously would have the effect of reducing the number of attempted undercover buys - and the number of citations issued - and making life a bit easier for clerks and store owners. And that, indeed, has been the result.

But the more disturbing result is that underage customers, as well as undercover agents, may be finding it easier to purchase tobacco. The effects of smoking and chewing can be devastating, and the loss of health or life, especially of a young person, is tragic.

The national Center for Disease Control released a survey in November that showed 19 percent of high school seniors smoked daily in 1993, up 2 percent from 1992. The CDC said there has been little progress in discouraging teens from taking up the habit and urged stricter enforcement against selling tobacco to minors.

It appears SB53 has put Utah in the position of retreating in the fight against tobacco sales to teenagers, at least temporarily. The emphasis on educating store owners and clerks was working. So far the no-tolerance technique of police has been less successful.

Passage of SB53 was an attempt to fix something that wasn't broken. If future statistics don't show a decrease in tobacco sales to underage customers, the 1995 Legislature should take a look at fixing SB53.